SUGAR HILL, N.H. - Here's a tip: Try the key first before you close the door from your outside deck. We learned this the hard way at a recent stay at Sunset Hill House. Our second-story deck, furnished with Victorian-style cast-iron table and chairs, looked like a perfect spot to enjoy some wine before dinner.
We uncorked the bottle, and the door, which opened out from the bathroom, clicked shut. Our room key didn't fit the lock. With no cellphone to call the front desk, we wondered whether we would miss our dinner reservation. There was nothing to do but sit back and sip, count on a serendipitous rescue, and enjoy the view of distant mountains beyond the golf course.
Actually, this famed "sunset view" isn't half as dramatic as the east-facing vista of the Presidential Range that we had contemplated most of the afternoon from lounge chairs by the pool.
City folks like us have been escaping to this location ever since the Sugar Hill train station - and Sunset Hill House - were built around 1880. Today's large and gracious inn, originally staff quarters for the grand hotel, was restored in the 1990s. (The hotel was demolished in 1974.) Current owners, Lon and Nancy Henderson, bought the property in 2000.
Our room, No. 6 in Hill House, was redecorated in 2002. The Victorian reproduction wallpaper of bluebirds and foliage on a yellow background combined with lace-trimmed bedding and curtain sheers to evoke a fine country lodging of a century ago. A firm king-size bed dominated the space, but the room was also furnished with a few small sitting chairs and an armoire concealing one of the few TVs in the inn. The bathroom was tight, with a stall shower and small vanity.
This must always have been one of the best mountain locations in New England. Surrounding roads are lined with sugar maples, and Franconia Notch is just down the road. Alpine skiers flock to Cannon Mountain (you can see the tram from the inn) and the Sunset Hill Golf Course, a nine-hole course dating from 1897, is across the street. In winter, the inn runs a Nordic skiing and snowshoeing center.
Our wine was almost gone when a couple headed to dinner at the inn parked out front. We hailed them, and they rescued us. We wouldn't miss our reservation after all.
The inn has a casual tavern serving burgers and pastas and a full-fledged restaurant that belongs to the gastronomic society of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and boasts a Wine Spectator Award wine list. The five-course table d'hôte runs a modest $45 per person, with another $22 for three accompanying glasses of wine. From our window table, the view was nothing short of fabulous, looking out at mounts Adams, Washington, North Twin, South Twin, Garfield, Lafayette, Little Haystack, Liberty, Cannon, and Kinsman.
"When it gets dark," our waitress said, "you can see by the headlights exactly where I-93 goes through Franconia Notch."
It was good to have something to look at. On a quiet weeknight, the kitchen was much slower than we would have expected. Our starters of celery soup and Caesar salad were competent, if tardy. The chicken dusted in porcini mushroom powder was well roasted, but an "apple brined" pork chop would have benefited from longer brining and less cooking. Vastly overcooked and underseasoned black rice and polenta, respectively, accompanied the plates. Alas, the white wine we'd hoped for wasn't chilled, although the waitress did offer to strain it through ice. Desserts - a two-layer mango and raspberry mousse and a bourbon pecan pie - were simply good. The service was cheerful and attentive, but the meal fell short of the restaurant's gastronomic airs. We made a mental note to get burgers from the tavern next time.
The difference at breakfast was like night and day. The glassware sparkled in the morning sun, which illuminated the collection of New Hampshire souvenir plates covering the walls. We helped ourselves to fresh juice, scones, croissants, and yogurt from the buffet and then selected entrees with a choice of bacon, ham, or smoked trout from the menu. The breakfast cook was both swift and deft. Eggs over easy came out without a broken or hard yolk. And the blueberry French toast was generously covered with berries in thick syrup.
The waitress brought over a pitcher of maple syrup as well. This is, after all, upcountry.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers from Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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